Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Blog-Exclusive: A New Essay by Mutt Ploughman

Deliver Us From Nowhere
Family; Springsteen; the last lone American night.

by Mutt Ploughman

I was 14 years old, riding a bike with a couple of $5 bills in my pocket to the music shop to pick up a record for my older brother, Luke. He had heard that I planned to venture ‘downtown’, to the commercial center of the small New Jersey suburb we grew up in during the 1980s, in order to buy some new music. He gave me a five and issued strict instructions to purchase him a copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. By comparison, the record I bought that day was Mötley Crüe’s infantile manifesto for pimple-faced misfits, Shout at the Devil. The eventual chasm between Springsteen and Mötley Crüe in terms of cultural significance illustrates the pronounced disparity between my brother’s judgment and my own at the time. Luke, the oldest of six siblings, was a smart kid. I, second son and one of a set of identical twins, was still finding my way, let’s say.

Aside from the memory itself, there are two things from that otherwise unremarkable day in our slumbering suburb that have endured: Springsteen’s music and my family. Both of them would return and provide the impetus for a most memorable occasion 24 years later. It was Super Bowl weekend 2008, and Luke was celebrating his 40th birthday the day after the big game. I traveled from the East coast with two of my siblings to Ohio to surprise him with an unannounced visit and a weekend party. Sharp as he is, Luke did not see it coming. Needless to say the weekend rapidly degenerated into ridiculous eating, drinking, and overall regressive behavior, even though by now all of us had children of our own and had more or less grown into responsible adults.

It’s so easy for me, and I suspect the same for my siblings, to associate our older brother with Springsteen. He was the original Bruce Springsteen fan in our family, the only one who recognized relatively early on that Springsteen was a classic and here to stay. Most of us arrived at the same conclusion, but only later; for me it took until I was 21 years old to see the light.

Luke was the one who attended the classic Giants Stadium concerts in 1985; he was the one who had the white concert t-shirt that became a fashion fixture for the period whether you liked Bruce or not. My wife tells me she never liked Bruce at any time, but she still owned the t-shirt. (Never managed to make sense of that one, but I’m not exactly known for having my finger on the pulse of fashion.) Luke bought all of his LPs; he had Greetings from Asbury Park and The River and Nebraska and everything else in his legendary record collection – the one my other brothers and I used to wander through like some forbidden forest when he was safely removed from home.

Even back then, especially back then, Bruce was ‘the Boss’. He had energy, stamina, a Fender Stratocaster on his shoulder, big guns under his rolled-up sleeves, and the girls went nuts over him. Every song on U.S.A. seemed to be a hit nationwide, but most people we knew felt that he was singing about us – average, hard-working New Jerseyans.

In our family, or at least among the kids, Luke was Boss. He was a natural leader; everybody looked up to him. He used to take on all five younger siblings in sporting contests that I don’t know how we even conceived of – 1-on-5 kickball, 1-on-5 soccer, etc. – let alone executed. No matter; he always crushed us anyway. One time he was photographed specially for the high school year book; they turned the picture into a silhouette and plastered it onto a full page with a banner that read “Are You a Typical Senior?”, then added tiny labels pointing to various parts of his wardrobe and school accessories. The point of this space-filler was, if you were ‘in’, your profile ought to closely resemble his.

People liked my big brother. One of the most miserable job experiences I ever had in high school was when my twin brother and I were hired to work for some computer parts company mainly because the owner had previously hired, and loved, Luke. That guy hated my twin and me, and never seemed to forgive us for not being Luke. He gave us miserable, menial jobs that had nothing to do with computers, such as cleaning gutters or cutting grass at various properties he owned. These tasks felt like a kind of cruel and unusual punishment for our general shortcomings.

Needless to say, I didn’t much enjoy my position with respect to my brother at the time, and wanted to cut my own path, which I like to think partially explains why I was buying Shout at the Devil that day. A bad move: but, sometimes, we manage to live those down.

Of course time eventually passes, and you grow up to some extent, and one day it occurs to you that it was probably not so easy to be the oldest. Luke probably had his own share of insecurities, for which he had no outlet: he was Luke; he was supposed to handle stuff. Never mind the fact that he was the first to high school, the first to college, the first to get a ‘real’ job, the first to get married, and the first Dad. All these thresholds took courage to transcend; we took it on faith that they were cleared with ease. When it came time for the rest of us to do those things, we figured we could manage it because someone had done it before us. Luke had to take every new challenge in stride, for others were perpetually watching. This phenomenon continues to this day.

Then, suddenly, it’s 2008 in the wintertime. Luke’s turning 40, and a few of us show up on the doorstep of his lovely home in, you guessed it, a suburb. We barrel in, making a lot of raucous noise, thoroughly upending his ‘quiet’ Super Bowl weekend. What does he do? He takes it in stride. Within an hour after our arrival, on a clear Friday evening, we’re out in the backyard, standing near their big deck, grilling huge steaks, drinking beers, horsing around with his young kids, cackling our heads off. And it was great fun. But then, the whole moment went somewhere else: enter the Boss.

Here’s what happened: Luke’s wife, Dana, decided some tunes were required to round out the experience. So, in a moment of genuine inspiration, she went into the house and put Springsteen’s Nebraska on the sound system. As Dana knew so well, this was Luke’s weekend; the Boss was mandatory. Since their house is equipped with external speakers, the night air was soon resonant with the melancholy but oddly nostalgic sounds of the title track from the 1982 album. It seems curious to make my next observation – given the fact that that song concerns a serial killer on a spree, and the entire album that follows is a somber, dark-hued patchwork of vivid stories about dispossessed individuals. But the mood abruptly changed, and I think all of us enjoying that winter night somehow became a more tightly-knit family as a result.

It is hard to articulate exactly how this happened. As far as I know, no one in my family has spent any time in Nebraska, and we are more than fortunate that we have never come in contact with the aberration of a serial killer. No one we knew in suburban New Jersey would have been desperate enough to board a Coast City bus in hopes of scoring a big payoff, and the truth is that our home, though not extravagant, was probably closer to a mansion on a hill than anything Springsteen lived in as a kid. We didn’t count any state troopers among our friends; our father was consistently there for us, if not always warm and cheery; nobody in my family knew what a carburetor even looked like, let alone had the ability to clean one out. And the closest I ever came to knowing someone called “Johnny 99” was having a twin brother named John, and he sure as hell has never done anything that put him before a judge.

And yet…. it is true that when we were young teens, these same songs were playing from behind our oldest brother’s closed door. We were New Jerseyans, and Bruce was Boss, all along the way. We all moved down separate roads in college, but Nebraska and the other albums always went with us. Later, as we progressed into our 20s and discovered the mirage of freedom that appears hazily in one’s early adult life, it was the reality found in the fine details of those Springsteen songs that resonated with us and drew attention to the fact that life was not a frivolous enterprise. Year by year, we shed away our youth, and arrived by divergent means upon the recondite knowledge that the American way of life had a cost. The price was your own blood, your toil, your money; possibly even your dreams. All the while, Springsteen’s music played on in the background, enforcing those lessons we were all in the process of learning.

By 2008, we all had those children I mentioned, and innumerable other gracious blessings. We were all working in different ways to support our families, but now we knew about what it took. All of us had faced struggles of one sort or another. For some of us, it was working one or two jobs supporting your wife and children on your own ability to earn money. For some it was giving up your own career ambitions to put family first. For others it was working and parenting simultaneously, while enduring the skyrocketing costs and rigors of higher education for the possibility of a more comfortable lifestyle later. In the midst of the struggle, I think, and in a time of war, high gas prices, a faltering economy and a vacuous spiritual landscape, it had become increasingly easy to feel inconsequential, adrift in some nameless void where even your best was not going to be good enough.

But not that night. On that milestone occasion, with those children running around, and under that beautiful dark fabric punched through with stars, all seemed at peace, and I have rarely felt less like I was marooned in a void. We had family around us, my twin brother was clinking his bottle of beer against mine, my sister-in-law was spinning up tunes, my little sister was on the backsteps looking like all she needed was an ice cream cone. And where was the boss? Posted at the grill, of course, taking the orders, giving the orders, keeping everyone fed and contented, on his own patch of dirty ground. Nothing feels better, the poet reminded us through those outdoor speakers, than blood on blood.

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